Close Reading: Iago “And what’s he then that says I play the villain?”

For the final class of my course on Shakespeare’s Tragedies, I’m coaching two young actors on a pair of tragic speeches I’ve selected, and I thought I’d share some of that work with you. The first is a speech by Lady Macbeth that comes from Act I, Scene v, which I discussed in another post. But today, I’m going to talk about the second one, Iago’s soliloquy in Act II, Scene iii.

The Text

IagoAnd what’s he then that says I play the villain?
When this advice is free I give and honest,
Probal to thinking and indeed the course1490
To win the Moor again? For ’tis most easy
The inclining Desdemona to subdue
In any honest suit: she’s framed as fruitful
As the free elements. And then for her
To win the Moor—were’t to renounce his baptism,1495
All seals and symbols of redeemed sin,
His soul is so enfetter’d to her love,
That she may make, unmake, do what she list,
Even as her appetite shall play the god
With his weak function. How am I then a villain1500
To counsel Cassio to this parallel course,
Directly to his good? Divinity of hell!
When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now: for whiles this honest fool1505
Plies Desdemona to repair his fortunes
And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,
I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear,
That she repeals him for her body’s lust;
And by how much she strives to do him good,1510
She shall undo her credit with the Moor.
So will I turn her virtue into pitch,
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all. Othello, Act II, Scene iii Lines 1488- 1513.

The Given Circumstances

Iago has begun his plan to humiliate Cassio and destroy Othello and Desdemona by getting Cassio drunk and sending Roderigo to fight with him. Alone in soliloquy, Iago explains how his advice to Cassio, to ask Desdemona to plead Othello on his behalf, is in reality the pin that will set off an explosion of distrust and pain for all of them:

Traditional Interpretations

Slide from my course on Shakespeare’s tragedies. Outschool, 2022

Iago poisons Othello’s mind by deceiving him into thinking his wife is unfaithful. He also manipulates the lusts and prejudices of those around him.  These actions, coupled with a number of passages where he brings up Satanic or hellish imagery, are why many productions portray Iago as if he were The Devil himself, and explain his hatred for Othello as nothing more than desire to do evil for its own sakee; what the poet Colridge called: “Motiveless malignity.”

It is true that Iago speaks and acts like The Devil through the course of the play,  but that doesn’t mean he thinks like a devil. Any actor will tell you that ‘motive-less malignity,’ is impossible to play. An actor has to construct a reason for why his character behaves this way. Below are some interviews and quotes from great Iagos who explain how they justified Iago’s evil and tried their best to find the man within the monster.

Iago is an easy part to bring off and rarely fails to impress. I am not the first to realise that there is no need to act the underlying falsity of the man rather to play “honest Iago” on all occasions. “Do not smile or sneer or glower — try to impress even the audience with your sincerity”: Edwin Booth. As Iago confides the truth to the audience (as always in Shakespeare), they are privy to his deceit and the gulling of Roderigo, Cassio, Desdemona and Othello himself. It is an unfair advantage and early on Willard accused me of trying to get the audience on my side against him. I explained that I didn’t need to try — Shakespeare had organised it that the villain’s part should be the audience’s portal into the action. The history of the play records many more serious misunderstandings between the Moor and his Ancient.

Ian McKellen, Ianmckellen.com

Literary Devices

Anthithesis

Iago loves to turn holy things on their head, and he revels in it with phrases like: “Divninity of Hell,”

“Do and Undo” and the notion of turning virtue into pitch, a substance that defiles what it touches.

Puns, Assonence, and Alliteration

In this speech especially, Iago likes to play with similar-sounding words “Fool” and “Fortune,” as well as sounds within those words like “Plied/Plead” and “Pour/Moor.” Iago’s soliloquy shows off that his ability to manipulate language as well as his ability to manipulate people.

Imagery

Fortune/ Angels/ Devils/ Pitch

Verse

Iago. And what's he then,
That saies I play the Villaine?
When this aduise is free I giue, and honest,
Proball to thinking, and indeed the course
To win the Moore againe.
For 'tis most easie
Th'inclyning Desdemona to subdue
In any honest Suite. She's fram'd as fruitefull
As the free Elements. And then for her
To win the Moore, were to renownce his Baptisme,
All Seales, and Simbols of redeemed sin:
His Soule is so enfetter'd to her Loue,
That she may make, vnmake, do what she list,
Euen as her Appetite shall play the God,
With his weake Function. How am I then a Villaine,
To Counsell Cassio to this paralell course,
Directly to his good? Diuinitie of hell,
When diuels will the blackest sinnes put on,
They do suggest at first with heauenly shewes,
As I do now. For whiles this honest Foole
Plies Desdemona, to repaire his Fortune,
And she for him, pleades strongly to the Moore,
Ile powre this pestilence into his eare:
That she repeales him, for her bodies Lust'
And by how much she striues to do him good,
She shall vndo her Credite with the Moore.
So will I turne her vertue into pitch,
And out of her owne goodnesse make the Net,
That shall en-mash them all. First Folio Transcription from Internet Shakespeare Editions

For the first 13 lines, Iago’s verse is uneven and has a lot of run on lines. It almost seems like he’s speaking in prose, which is to say, that he is speaking from his mind, but not his heart. Then, right at the line: “Divinity of Hell,” the tone changes, the verse is slower and more deliberate. Now Iago is letting his real feelings out- his narcisism, his sadistic glee, his mysogyny and his utter hatred of everyone in the play.

Questions to consider

Again, what is the real reason Iago hates Othello? Jealousy? Lust? Envy?

How does Iago feel about this plot? Does it give him pleasure? Pain? What will destroying Othello accomplish for him?

Our Interpretation

The Moor, howbeit that I endure him not,
Is of a constant, loving, noble nature,1090
And I dare think he’ll prove to Desdemona
A most dear husband. Now, I do love her too;
Not out of absolute lust, though peradventure
I stand accountant for as great a sin,

In this interpretation, I believe Iago really actually loves Desdemona and hates Othello for taking her away from him. His unrequited love also manifests itself as a bitter hatred toward her. In our culture, men who love women but are unable to possess them are demeaned and mocked with terms like ‘simp,’ ‘incel,’ ‘loser,’ or even ‘cuck.’ With this in mind, I think Iago’s devilish imagery is based on being denied love. Like Lucifer, I feel Iago lost paradise when he lost Desdemona, and now hates everyone who takes her away from him, including himself.

Resources:

https://www.rsc.org.uk/shakespeare-learning-zone/othello/language/analysis

https://mckellen.com/stage/othello/index.htm

https://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/character-analysis-iago-in-othello

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